BELTON — Mary Hardin-Baylor was 4 yards and 3½ minutes away from possibly playing for the national championship.
By the time Saturday evening turned into night, though, the Crusaders were just as far away from their ultimate goal as they were when the season started.
UMHB couldn’t punch the ball into the end zone on three straight tries from inside the Wisconsin-Whitewater 10-yard line and settled for a field goal in the closing minutes, and the Warhawks used their ball-control offense to eat up the clock and escape with a 16-15 victory in an NCAA Division III national semifinal.
It was the second semifinal loss in as many years for the second-ranked Crusaders (13-1), who saw a 12-0 second-quarter lead evaporate at lively Crusader Stadium.
“You go through life and there are some painful times. You have to learn to respond to them,” UMHB coach Pete Fredenburg said. “It’s very disappointing that we didn’t win.”
UMHB, whose offense was held 236 yards and 35 points below its average, trailed 16-12 but was set up first-and-goal at the UW-Whitewater 4 with less than 4 minutes remaining.
After a false start penalty, two Elijah Hudson runs moved the ball to the 4 again. On third-and-goal, Zach Anderson’s pass into the end zone hit reserve H-back Kolby Kelley in the arms and stomach, before falling incomplete.
Chad Peevey’s 21-yard field goal on fourth down cut the gap to a single point with 3:29 remaining, but Matt Behrendt’s 18-yard pass to tight end Derric Junakin on third down a minute later gave the fifth-ranked Warhawks (14-0) the one first down they needed to salt away the win.
“I didn’t want (UW-Whitewater) to gain any momentum,” Fredenburg said of the decision to kick the field goal. “Certainly you want to go for it. That’s your gut reaction, but I felt like we had time. I don’t know that I would do anything differently.”
While UMHB totaled only 53 passing yards and Crusaders quarterback Zach Anderson was picked off twice, Behrendt was 21-of-29 passing for 197 yards and no interceptions.
“We know that if we don’t turn the ball over, there’s a really good chance that we’re going to win with the defense that we have,” Behrendt said. “So I just have to go out there and make the right reads and make the right decisions and at the end of the day, we’re going to be winners.”
Behrendt’s efficiency combined with Jordan Ratliffe’s 100 yards rushing helped the Warhawks convert 10 of their 18 third-down chances and hold the ball for more than 34 minutes as the Crusaders struggled to get their defense off the field.
“We had patience and these types of games are always going to be a field position game, a possession game. You can’t panic,” UW-Whitewater coach Lance Leipold said. “It was going to come down to opportunities, and we found ways to get it done.”
UMHB raced to a 12-0 lead midway through the second quarter on a 30-yard Peevey field goal, a safety and Hudson’s 10-yard touchdown run, but the Crusaders didn’t score again until Peevey’s kick in the closing minutes.
“We knew that no matter how much you get up on those guys, they’re going to come back,” said Hudson, a senior who ran for 106 yards in his final game. “We felt like we needed to put more points on the board, but we weren’t able to.
“There was never a point where you could really feel confident.”
Warhawks Took lead in third
The Warhawks cut the gap to 12-7 on Ratliffe’s 3-yard touchdown run 2 minutes before halftime and took the lead for good on his 5-yard scoring run midway through the third quarter.
UW-Whitewater added Eric Kindler’s 31-yard field goal late in the third quarter and its defense — ranked No. 1 in the country in points allowed — routinely flummoxed UMHB.
Brady Grayvold intercepted an errant Anderson pass inside the Warhawks’ 10 to thwart a Crusaders scoring chance in the first half, and Ryan Winske killed another UMHB drive with a second-half interception after receiver Keith Reineke bobble the ball.
“We had a pass in our hands that they intercepted, and we had a pass in our hands that we didn’t catch that would have been a big difference in the ballgame,” Fredenburg said.
While UMHB fell to 1-4 all-time in the semifinals — with three of those losses coming to UW-Whitewater — the four-time national champion Warhawks advanced to the Stagg Bowl for the eighth time in nine years.
UW-Whitewater will face No. 1-ranked and defending national champion Mount Union (Ohio) for the title next week.